Twenty years ago, in late 1998, a 44-year-old professor in the Cybernetics Department at the U.K.’s University of Reading underwent an unusual procedure. Kevin Warwick opted for an elective surgery in which a radio-frequency identification device (RFID) chip was implanted under the skin on his left arm. Using antennas dotted around his laboratory, Professor Warwick was able to control his surroundings with little more than a Jedi-like wave of his hand.
“At the main entrance [of my lab], a voice box operated by the computer said ‘Hello’ when I entered,” he later wrote of his experience. “The computer detected my progress through the building, opening the door to my lab for me as I approached it and switching on the lights. For the nine days the implant was in place, I performed seemingly magical acts simply by walking in a particular direction.”
The reception the procedure received in the press was, well, pretty much what you would expect. Journalists like nothing more than the chance to roll out punny headlines in response to an outré bit of craziness in the news cycle. While some outlets treated it seriously, there was certainly more than a little tongue-in-cheek coverage, such as the title of CNN’s article, “Is that a chip in your shoulder, or are you just happy to see me?”
In a world in which most U.S. homes were just starting to wrap their head around the internet and smart homes were something out of The Jetsons, Warwick’s stunt seemed like a punchline to many, rather than a glimpse at tech-still-to-come.
The chip business
To paraphrase the apocryphal unfunny comedian, people sure aren’t laughing now. This month, it was reported in the U.K.’s Guardian and Telegraph newspapers that companies across the pond are implanting microchips, the size of grain of rice, into the hands of employees. These RFID chips can be used to allow employees access to restricted parts of company buildings or ways to login to computer systems, without the inconvenience of losable keycards.
“It would be true to say that the interest is enormous,” Dr. Stewart Southey, Chief Medical Officer for the Swedish company, Biohax International, told us. Biohax was founded five years ago by founder Jowan Österlund after a decade-and-a-half working in the piercing and body modification business. “We are approached many times each day by companies and individuals wanting to adopt our technology or partner with us,” Southey continued.
He went on to describe the advantages of such microchips. For employees these include being able to enter buildings and secure areas without needing to remember to bring an access card, not having to remember usernames or passwords for multiple work system accounts, and even being able to purchase food in the canteen without requiring a wallet. For companies, it can mean shorter onboarding of new staff, improved access management, and no more having to reissue lost cards — which means less of a reliance on plastic. “We are working on increasing functionality all the time,” Southey said.
Steven Northam is the founder of BioTeq, a company which describes itself as the UK’s leading human technology implant specialists. BioTeq has already implanted its RFID chips in the hands of people working in parts of the UK’s financial and engineering sectors, and has also provided chips to other countries in Europe, along with Japan and China.
Northam stresses the enthusiastic growing market for RFID chips, but also points out (as did Southey) that his company leaves the choice of whether or not to use microchip implants up to the individual. “We have enquires daily now around human microchip implants, mainly from individuals working for companies who use RFID/NFC access systems who want to swap their ID badge for an implant,” he said. “We see less from companies looking to offer the service to employees, and have never heard of a company requesting or enforcing someone has a microchip fitted as a part of a job. The ethical considerations around that are huge.”
The ethical conundrum
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is these ethical considerations that will have many people worried. Our views on technology are frequently informed by our knowledge of the world before that particular technology came along. For example, we associate microchipping using RFID chips with animal ownership because this is where it is seen most routinely. When such things are applied to humans, it is therefore perhaps natural that we associate them with questions about power dynamics and dehumanization — although, as both companies point out, the technology is, at present, entirely optional.
Southey points out that the current chip provided by Biohax has no GPS capability involved, meaning that it cannot be used for tracking the exact geolocation of employees. Such a thing is possible by monitoring logins, but he notes that this already the case.
“Companies already ‘track’ employee’s timesheets, door access, and computer logins through current technology,” he said. “We are offering at least the same services currently available, but without the inconvenience of the smart card. In addition to that, we are working on applying blockchain technology so that privacy, data security and integrity and control are returned to the user. We plan to provide a self-sovereign identity solution with granular permissioning ability which protects users.”
One person who is more than happy to see RFID tags gain momentum? Professor Kevin Warwick, today a visiting professor at Coventry University in the UK, and author of the book I, Cyborg. “The discussions we’re having now about this — should we or shouldn’t we be doing it — are the discussions that I thought we would have 20 years ago,” he told us.
Warwick, who has gone on to explore bodyhacking technologies throughout his career, sees enormous potential in RFID chips. While business use cases are one, he thinks that such chips, were they to become mainstream, could prove extremely useful to users.
“One other big area of application I can see would be passport control at airports,” he continued. “There are always enormous queues and if an implant was used — not that you’d have to have it — you could get much faster access. The important thing to be aware of is that a chip like this can carry all sorts of information, not just an identification number. So there are enormous potential applications in the health sector, where it could be used to store medical records, such as details of the medication someone requires for epilepsy.”
The fact that stories such as this are still news perhaps means that the world at large still hasn’t caught up with Warwick’s 1990s vision. But it’s also clear that — for better or worse — we’re getting closer every day. Are you ready to start your new life as a cyborg?